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Archive for February, 2009

Barren…or Boundless

Abraham had a choice.

His wife, Sarah, was barren. Despite all efforts, they had not been able to have a child. And now both were old, well beyond child-bearing years.

starclusterAnd yet, God had come to Abraham, and promised that he would become the patriarch of a great nation. More descendants than he could count. God had even appeared to Abraham in a stroll of the night, told him to look up at the stars, and see if he could count them (no light pollution back then!) – and said, “…so shall  your descendants be.”

Abraham the childless. Sarah the barren. God the promiser of impossibilities.

What did Abraham do? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

Abraham could stare at the barrenness and disbelieve. Or he could look at the boundless stars, created by the same powerful God who made a re-creative promise, and have faith. Abraham believed.

This call to naked faith in the face of an insurmountable barrier seems other-worldly, even delusional. These living fossils, with a track record of only failure and disappointment, having a child? Meanwhile, the years rolled on. So when the promise was repeated 13 years later, Abraham laughed, and when Sarah heard of it, she laughed as well.

And one year later, they had a son, named Isaac (meaning: “he laughs”). So their faith was a bit shaky during the long fulfillment waiting period. That didn’t shake God up at all. What appears impossible to men is not only possible, but certain with God. Yet, there’s much more involved here than the birth of a miracle child…

What about this righteousness referenced in the text? In the New Testament, the apostle Paul points to this ancient incident as a pivotal illustration of the very heart of the gospel. What does Abraham’s believing God, in the face of impossibility, have to do with being pronounced as righteous before him?

Justification (being pronounced fully forgiven and righteous before God) by faith is the central message of the Christian gospel. The believer sees him/herself as utterly barren, without any ability to bring forth life in the form of love for God, obedience to His commands, and self-sacrificing love for others. All attempts at righteousness are “filthy rags” – more mockery than sincerity, since underlying them is a go-it-alone disposition that doesn’t care for God at all.

Seeing oneself as hopelessly defiled and guilty, standing in a cesspool of sins past and present, with no hope for self-improvement that would even begin to approach righteousness or holiness, the sinner is gently confronted by God, who points to the boundless stars. He points to a fully-righteous Son who was not stained by sin, but who died in the place of sinners, and says, “Believe.” He says, “I will exchange those rags, that filth, that guilt, that utter barrenness, with the boundless righteousness of My Son. But not on the basis of anything you’ve done or can do. Not because of any religious observances. Not for any acts of outward goodness. Only out of undeserved grace. Believe. Cease your selfish rebellion, cease your fruitless self-efforts, and be my renewed son or daughter. Believe.

Righteous before a perfectly holy God? Forgiven for all guilty sins, committed in dark corners or even in the full light of day? Moved from the status of guilty criminal to beloved and forgiven child, solely on the basis of self-forgetting, and God-affirming, belief?? Shedding the rags of my uncleanness for garments of righteousness – a pure gift from a gracious God? Impossible. You laugh!

Surely there’s a list of 47 things I must do to show penance; surely I must “work off” all the bad karma I’ve left in my wake; surely I’ve got to follow in the footsteps of cloistered monks of old and live in impoverished self-denial in order to…in order to what? Pretend you’re something other than what you are? Giving up Facebook for Lent won’t pay off a single sin, nor will it make you a shred closer to a holy God. He’s not impressed with empty works.

No, we must learn to laugh at our futile efforts, putting them aside to gaze at a boundless God whose boundless power and promises are the only hope for those afflicted with sin. Within is only barrenness. Righteousness comes as a gift, from the only One who can bestow it, and He gives it to any and all who believe. You, like Abraham, have a choice. Will it be barrenness? Or boundlessness?

Believe.

(image credit)

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Puppy Love

Like ancient clippings dusted off and pulled out of an old trunk, the memories of those early crushes – the days of “puppy love” – seem far away and part of a never-to-be-relived era. Love now is of the steady, mature variety – the explosions of infatuation and hot fires of young love are replaced by the realistic, understanding love of a long-married couple trying to survive the day-to-day demands of navigating through life, and transitioning energetic boys into responsible young men.

Not a stage in life when you expect to fall under the spell of…puppy love.

Years ago, when we adopted two abandoned neighborhood kittens, we (and our boys) reveled in their energy and cuteness, a stage that we knew would not last long, as the little creatures transitioned into what all kittens eventually achieve – cat-hood. Having had numerous cats for pets, we knew the drill – our existence would soon become that of expendable providers of food and shelter, occasionally rewarded with a rub here or a purr there, but mostly tolerated by the recipients of our favor, who figured that a dead mouse every once a while fully justified their place in the household. A return of love? – maybe one could argue that we were a convenient familiarity, approximately on the level of a comfortable piece of furniture. Not more.

mysticsitsAll of that changed two weeks ago, when Mystic, the black lab mix, left her litter of nine to join our family of 7 eagerly-awaiting humans, and two soon-to-be-thoroughly-annoyed felines.

The cats used to enjoy the run of the house – the bedroom level, the main living level, and the basement. Now, they cannot dash through the middle level fast enough, like a jilted girlfriend bumping into the new squeeze at the supermarket, and quickly remembering a forgotten item in Aisle 9. They seem to sense that their former servants have a new interest – puppy love has invaded the house.

Now, we love our cats, to the extent that one loves those who embrace your existence as a necessity. But Mystic, you see, wags her tail when we look at her. Mystic licks our faces. Mystic is eager to see us – she likes to play, to chase, to curl up next to us and be friends. It’s not that the incumbent pets were abusive or anything – they’re loyal and predictable and clean up after themselves. But while they prefer to keep their distance, Mystic can’t wait for the next round of hugs and roughhousing. Every day is a date, every passing moment is a passion moment.

Mystic, like most dogs, doesn’t get the idea of neutrality, or cool reserve. She had litter-mates for nine weeks, but now everyone is a playmate. Awake means affection; asleep means fueling up more energy for – well, puppy love!

She won’t be a puppy for long, of course. Canine-human love matures as both pet and master grow older. But as the kids start to leave the nest, and as the cats continue to make their relatively stingy deposits in the bank account of bonhomie, it will be a delight to have a friend who continues to love unconditionally, with tail-wagging eagerness and readiness to play chase in the yard.

Welcome, Mystic. We’re glad you’re aboard for the ride!

(photo by Nate Woodruff)

So – what have you learned from love?

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